CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Mitt Romney calls it the "advice line."
Stop after stop, day after day, the Republican presidential nominee steps away from the podium that's set up for his campaign speech and down from the platform that's raised above the crowd. He walks forward to the metal barriers that separate him from his audience, where grinning supporters wave their iPhone cameras and reach out their hands in hopes of touching the man who could become the 45th president of the United States.
And while they're at it, they try to give him an earful. "Come to Iowa more often," one man yells as Romney passes by during a campaign stop on a recent October evening. The supporter, clad in a Romney-Ryan T-shirt, didn't quite get close enough for a handshake; Romney looks his way, and just grins.
Shaking hands, kissing babies, signing autographs — the "rope line" has been a staple of presidential politics for decades. But cellphone cameras, the Internet and modern security threats have turned what used to be a low-risk chance to get up close and personal with voters into a carefully guarded exercise fraught with opportunities for a candidate to mess up.
"Thank you! Thanks, you guys!" Romney typically repeats, over and over again, grinning widely and sometimes throwing his head back with a laugh. "You're great!"
Romney's campaign recognizes that the rope line is full of pitfalls for a candidate who sometimes says exactly the wrong thing. It was, after all, on the rope line in 2008 that President Barack Obama encountered Joe Wurzelbacher, the plumber who thought Obama's tax plan would hurt his small business. Obama responded, "When you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody" — a conversation immediately immortalized on YouTube.
Recording an exchange like that after a Romney rally wouldn't be easy. "It's a high school prom, it's a Springsteen song, it's a ride in a Chevrolet" — the lyrics to Rodney Atkins "It's America" blare over the sound system. At the recent stop in Cedar Rapids, it echoed inside the cavernous airplane hangar where Romney had just finished speaking, making it nearly impossible to hear any of his brief exchanges with voters.
In the earlier months of the campaign, the din didn't seem to stop the people who do get close from trying to tell Romney what they think he should be doing differently, or what he should be talking more about, or who should be a more visible surrogate out on the campaign trail (Ann Romney is a frequent crowd favorite).
"We call the rope line now the advice line," she told Radio Iowa earlier this fall. "Because everyone cares and everyone wants to help and everyone wants to just give their piece."
As voters offer their advice, Romney will nod, smile, and keep moving down the line. "Thank you, thank you," he'll repeat, reaching out to shake hands, stopping briefly with an extra smile or kind word for a baby or small child pushed forward by excited parents.
There is one surefire way to get Romney's attention: bring along memorabilia from his father's presidential campaigns. Voters who come armed with stories about having met George Romney, who ran for president in 1968 and for governor of Michigan before that, are much more likely to get an extra moment of attention or a quick autograph from his youngest son. The old George Romney campaign signs and buttons have even spawned a new line of vintage-style campaign swag that's now for sale on Romney's website.
Friday afternoon in Ohio, nine men in suits spread out behind the candidate as he worked his way along the barriers with the crowd. Less visible, additional Secret Service agents followed along through the crowd, having to push their way sideways along through Romney supporters trying to surge forward.
With just a few days to go before the election, most of the requests have been distilled into a simple instruction: "Kick his butt!" yells Andy Yates, a volunteer from North Carolina who traveled to Ohio to help Romney win. He attended Romney's afternoon rally near Columbus, where 8-year-old Adriana Marcum earned a handshake even though there were several rows of people in front of her: She was conveniently perched on her father's shoulders.
"It's not really so much advice anymore," says Garrett Jackson, the personal aide who follows Romney along the rope lines, black Sharpie markers at the ready in case the candidate wants to sign autographs. "It's just: win."
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